Things I Learned from… Godzilla

Now, you know me. I like a good monster, stomping around tearing down the scenery and being scary and tragic in turn. A great monster movie stimulates all the senses and delivers on the full cinematic experience – emotions, sound, visuals, awe and surprise. So it’s hardly surprising I liked the new Godzilla a lot.

The decision to hold Godzilla back for as long as possible – half seen, hinted at, glimpsed on a TV screen – works tremendously well. Personally, I would have liked just a little more monster-fighting in the third act, but you can’t please everyone…

(SPOILER WARNING – discussion of plot points follows)

But the problem with monster movies is, the human characters are not driving the plot. Pacific Rim and all its anime forebears find a way for the humans to fight the monsters, involving them in the action – but if you’re not going down that route, then your human characters are necessarily excluded from driving the narrative. Their job is simply to survive what’s happening around them.

This makes it pretty hard to involve the audience with your central character. Sure, they want to survive: but doesn’t everyone? If they’re not driving the story – and they can’t, that’s the nature of the genre – why are they the hero of this movie?

Godzilla flirts with this question constantly, but never seems able to commit itself to an answer, and ends up fatally weakened by its own indecision.

Ford Brody (a name only marginally more believable than Ford Prefect, let’s face it) starts the movie as a bomb disposal tech newly arrived back from active duty. This creates immediate heroic expectations – the US military will save the day!

Better still, he’s effectively predestined to this – his father Joe was a nuclear expert present at the most recent Godzilla sighting, and it’s that connection that drags Ford from San Francisco to Japan, and to his first encounter with giant mutated monsters. So far, so good.

(Though I do wish we’d had time to explore the connection between father and son’s professions, and the implications for their relationship. If you lose your wife in a nuclear catastrophe, and your son then chooses a career defusing bombs, you’d feel a little conflicted about that, wouldn’t you?)

Right, so we’ve got a hero who has a family connection to the monster, and bomb disposal skills. That’s all going to come in handy, right? That’s what binds him to the action, that’s what makes him our hero?

Well, no. Mostly. Ford knows nothing about the creatures, either from his past, or even from what he saw today. He has nothing to offer the military/scientific response team beyond one revelation which would have become apparent within a few hours anyway. He’s actually sent home – and it’s pure dumb geography that his route intersects that of the creatures, keeping him around to be our viewpoint character.

But wait! He’s a bomb expert, and here’s a giant nuclear bomb on a train! Ford Brody is about to become important to the plot again!

Sort of. The team travelling with the bomb think he might come in handy, rather than being vital. Then the bomb becomes a problem rather than a solution, and poor unwanted Ford finally has a job to do – shut it down –

Only when he gets there, the team declare after a cursory examination that the bomb casing can’t be opened and the bomb will have to be sent out to sea to explore harmlessly (!) rather than being defused. Ford does some stuff, but frankly, anyone could have achieved what he achieved – and we’re left wondering why this guy merited our attention for the last two hours…

What’s the lesson here? Your hero should be the only one who can save the day. Whether it’s skills, courage, insight or compassion, your hero is the only person with The Right Stuff to get this particular job done. If s/he wasn’t there, the world should have ended, because no one else could have done expected what s/he did…

An everyman hero is great, but some circumstance, character flaw or strength, or determination needs to make a hero of them. And poor old Ford is, in the end, simply a guy with a few things to offer that turn out not to be needed.